Debates about whether or not the current service rifle is good enough are not new. It seems when a rifle reaches legendary status, said rifle is deemed infallible. Things like the AK-47 with its legendary status have the myth that the weapon is unjammable, a myth perpetuated because of its history and status.

ARMY: Report on the Garand
Mar. 24, 1941
Time Magazine,9171,884292-1,00.html

Last week the U. S. Marine Corps released a report on the Garand rifle. Because the Marines know a lot about small arms, and had just adopted the Garand, the report was authoritative and timely. It was also:

  • The only official, fully documented account of Garand performance ever published.
  • A grave indictment of the Garand’s dependability.

The Test. Until lately, the Marines’ standard rifle was the 38-year-old war-tested Springfield, which was also the Army’s rifle until 1936. Since the Army adopted the Garand, the Marine Corps has been under pressure to do the same. The Army last week, had about as many Springfields as Garands in service, but was substituting Garands as fast as production (about 700 a day) permitted.

Although the Marines are part of the Navy, they get their small arms from the War Department, and wartime supply problems would be simplified if both services used the same rifle. Last winter the Marine Corps decided to have the rifle matter out once & for all. A board was appointed to test the bolt-action Springfield and three semi-automatic rifles (Garand, Winchester, Johnson). The board included such acknowledged experts as Lieut. Colonel William W. Ashurst, a crack rifleman, and Lieut. Colonel Merritt A. Edson, who had earned Marine Corps fame in Nicaragua, hunting down Sandinistas. The Winchester, barely out of the laboratory, was never in the running. The much-publicized Johnson did better than the Winchester, did not equal the Garand in over-all performance.

For practical purposes the tryout resolved into a contest between 1) the Garand and the Springfield, and 2) the different systems of combat fire which each represented. The old-fashioned Springfield puts down a sure but comparatively slow fire (12-15 aimed shots a minute, for an average rifleman), is therefore the darling of those who believe with Colonel William Prescott of Bunker Hill (“Don’t fire until you see the white of their eyes”) in deliberate, sharpshooting marksmanship. The Garand is three to three-and-a-half times faster, is therefore the logical choice of those who put high fire power above all else.

But, said the Marine board: “Two things stand out as essential in the shoulder weapon for the Marine Corps; one is ‘dependability,’ and the other ‘volume of fire.’ Bearing in mind the amphibious missions in the Marine Corps, the board places dependability first. . . .”

After boiling down results of all the tests for accuracy, ruggedness, general fitness for combat, the board rated the rifles: 1) Springfield; 2) Garand; 3) Johnson; 4) Winchester. Best that the board could say for the Garand was that it was “superior to the other semi-automatic rifles . . .”; “superior in the number of well-aimed shots that can be fired per minute”; could be quickly cleaned in the field. Sum & substance of the findings was that the Garand was a fair-weather rifle, excellent on the practice range but far from good enough for the Marines when the going got tough. The going in the test was very tough. Examples:

– The rifles were doused in mud “of light consistency.” Results: “The M-1903 [Springfield] rifle can be operated. However, the bolt became harder to operate as the test progressed. . . . The M-1 [Garand] rifles would not function and the longer an attempt was made to operate the bolt by hand the harder it became to open.”
– The board assumed “that troops have landed through light surf [as Marines must often do] and that rifles were dropped or dragged over wet sand in reaching cover on the beach.” The rifles were exposed to saltwater spray (but not actually soaked in water), dropped in wet sand. Results: the Springfields fired “in the normal manner.” But “the bolts on the two [Garands] could not be opened by hand after the first and second shots respectively. The firer had to stand up and use his foot against the operating handle in order to open the actions. Both [Garand] rifles . . . failed this test.”

– The board assumed “that troops have landed through heavy surf sufficient to break completely over men and equipment, and immediately engage in combat on a sandy beach.” Results: both Garands failed to operate as semi-automatic rifles (i.e., reload automatically after each round). One failed completely and the firer had to hammer the bolt with a mallet; “the other operated by hand with extreme difficulty. …” The Springfields continued to work, with slight difficulty. On these salt water tests, the Garand was rated last, the Springfield first.

– All the rifles got a thorough dousing in fresh water (assumption: heavy rain). Results: The Garands failed again.

– One of the toughest tests was for endurance in prolonged firing (9,000-10,000 rounds). On over-all efficiency and ruggedness, the Springfield was rated ahead of the Garand, which was second. On comparative accuracy at the end of 9,000 rounds, the Garand rated last of the four rifles, the Springfield first. But up to 3,000 rounds, the Garand was very accurate, earned the board’s hearty praise at this stage.

– The Johnson hand-fired “with ease” through most of the mud, salt water and fresh water tests when the Garand failed, but had so much trouble (broken parts) in other phases that the board rated it well below the Garand.

Said the board: “In those tests which simulated adverse field conditions, such as exposure to dust, rain, mud, salt water, sand, etc., the [Springfield] could always be operated with some degree of proficiency. Whereas the semi-automatic weapons generally failed to function mechanically and, in most cases, the gas-operated rifles [Garand, Winchester] could not even be manually operated after a few shots had been fired. . . . The tests . . . were undoubtedly severe as it was believed that they had to approach the extreme in order to be all inclusive. . . . The board realizes that only a certain proportion of the rifles in any one operation . . . will be subjected to the severest conditions, and that the remainder will function normally.” This proportion might work out all right for a large force carrying semiautomatics. But “it is … doubtful if this is true for the Marine Corps, where small units are usually employed and thereby place a correspondingly greater value on reliability and efficiency of each individual rifle.”

The Army’s Side. A fair question was: Why, then, did the Marine Corps adopt the Garand? In an explanation last week, Marine Corps headquarters in Washington put more emphasis on the Garand’s high fire power, less on the Springfield’s dependability, than the testing board did.

That was the Army’s case. After the Marines adopted the Garand, Under Secretary of War Robert Porter Patterson declared that the report completely vindicated the Garand. When the report first came out he showed only that portion which called the Garand the best of the semiautomatics. General Charles Macon Wesson, too, talked as though the report proved all that he and his Ordnance Department had claimed for their creation.

He also said that Ordnance tests had already and conclusively proved the Garand’s efficiency.

Up to last week, $24,000,000 had been appropriated for Army Garands, and the Marines have $3,000,000 more to spend for them. Some 100,000 had been issued to troops, including a few to the Marine Corps.

Civilian Engineer John C. Garand and his co-workers at Springfield Armory had licked many of their worst production problems, still had a tough job, but were doing very well at it. Winchester Repeating Arms Co. has been trying to get into Garand production for 17 months, has a contract for 65,000 Garands, last week was edging into real production after 17 months of arduous effort. By next year the Army expects to have enough Garands (400,000) for its expanded force (not all soldiers are riflemen).

Wavell’s Experience. In the light of the full report, released by the Marines last week, another general’s experience with small arms was significant. The New York Times Magazine reprinted excerpts from three lectures which General Sir Archibald Wavell, British commander in the Middle East, delivered in 1939. In a discourse on good generals and how they are made, he had evoked the mud, the blood, the guns of World War I:

“Rifles and automatic weapons submitted to the [British] small arms committee are, I believe, buried in mud for 48 hours or so before being tested for their rapid firing qualities. The necessity for such a test was very aptly illustrated in the late war, when the original Canadian contingent arrived in France armed with the Ross rifle, a weapon which had shown its superior qualities in target shooting . . . in peace. In the mud of the trenches it was found to jam after a very few rounds ; and after a short experience of the weapon under active service conditions the Canadian soldier refused to have anything to do with it and insisted on being armed with [another] rifle.”